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by Michael Ralph

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KABT 2014 Fall Conference

August 13, 2014 in Events, KABT Meetings

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Fall Conference Postcard

Directions to the Armitage Center can be found on the KU Field Station website:  http://kufs.ku.edu/about/directions/

 

Schedule Image 2

 

It’s going to be great, so make plans to join us!

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Kansas Fossil Search

August 9, 2014 in ID challenge, Labs, Nature, Student Research Ideas

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Re-posted from the BioRx blog - http://wp.me/p4PfB2-1f

I finally had the chance to evaluate my sediment samples that we collected from the Flint Hills last week (I may or may not have been missing a PD meeting at the time… I was eager).  The beautiful sediment striation made me think that surely there would be some great micro-fossils in the soil.

Checking the samples.

Checking the samples.

Sadly, the dirt in the area is almost entirely eroded rock.  Under the microscope it looks almost like brown sugar.  It is possible to see where water bubbles had formed as the dirt was repacked after the weathering, which would allow some discussion with students, but nothing more substantial.  I was initially disappointed.  Then…

Alas, what yonder lies?

Alas, what yonder lies?

Well that is certainly something!  I cleaned the subject with a small painting brush from which I had cut/plucked most of the bristles for a very fine point.  I used the brush and a wire probe (an inoculation loop with the loop snipped off using metal nips) to center the find and turn it over.  Here is what I saw after the preparation:

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I wanted to jump to a trilobite identification, but something was bothering me.  This shape looked too familiar.  I spoke with a couple colleagues in my department, and no one could make a confident identification.  I worried that these remains may be a pill bug carapace that had been sun-bleached.  My department chair suggested that I evaluate the hardness of the sample, because fossilized remains should be harder (due to their replacement of many constituent substances with sediment) while more recent remains should be frail and brittle.  Using forceps I performed this evaluation and found that indeed the sample was highly fragile and was destroyed quickly during manipulation.  Ultimately I was left with one confirmed fossil in the entirety of my new collection.

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The lonely spoils: a gastropod impression.

Despite the low density of “keepers”, this exercise would have been great for students.  Acting on an informed prediction, testing a sample with multiple explanations, and ultimately confirming the less desirable explanation but still contributing to the understanding of the location are all a big part of the scientific process.  I will have to look elsewhere for local sources of fossils, but my understanding of the area is more complete now and I had a ton of fun doing some real paleontology.

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Biomes Activity by Chris Ollig

July 31, 2014 in Labs, Nature, Teaching Resources

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During our fantastic camping chair conversations at this springs kabt field trip several people shared some wonderful ideas for lessons they have developed or used in their classroom.  I had a few individuals inquire about an activity I developed to help students learn about the various biomes.  

As is usually the case, a winter collaboration with fellow bvn biology teachers helped spark an idea.  We were discussing ways to avoid the usual mundane exercise of teaching students “facts” about various biological thingamajigs.  I have struggled for a while with how much it pained me to teach students about how many inches of rain a particular biome received annually so that seemed like the best topic to start on. 

My general philosophy is that teaching students how to gather information about a topic is more beneficial than spoon feeding them the information.  Further, I feel that having students inquire about just one topic (i.e. rainforest biome) rather than every topic will allow them to better grasp the idea of what exactly the concept is.  That is certainly more valuable than knowing how much rainfall EACH biome receives annually etc.  Second, I would say that giving the students purpose in their learning and perhaps even stoking a little competition does wonders for building student engagement.  

That brings me to this lesson.  I attempted to develop a way to encourage students to investigate one particular biome, and what better motivation than their VERY SURVIVAL! Admittedly I have a guilty pleasure…Naked and Afraid.  So this activity plays with the idea that students are dropped off in a particular biome and asked to survive by researching various biotic and abiotic factors found in their environment.  The more thorough their investigation, the longer they survive. Granted, a bunch of naked high school students running around the rainforest is probably not something the district would condone, so I changed the name to…wait for it…Mostly Clothed But Still A Little Afraid.

This spring was my first attempt at this activity, and yes I did discover several aspects that could use some tweeking, but my overall impression was that the students genuinely loved it. They were excited to dig into their biome and see what they could come up with.  After the assignment was completed I averaged the “days survived” for each group and had a dramatic reveal of the winning groups.  Interestingly, the biomes I thought would be the easiest to survive scored the lowest.  I think that across the board, the dessert biome scored the highest.  Go figure.

Anyways, here is the full document.  Use what you like, modify for your tastes.  

Biome Survival Project STUDENT HANDOUT
Biome Survival Project TEACHER INFO

Chris Ollig, Blue Valley North High School

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Inquiry in AP Biology

July 26, 2014 in Labs, Student Research Ideas, Teaching Resources

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The recently implemented AP Biology curriculum has placed an increased focus on science practice skills.  In an effort to properly reflect this in my classroom, I made the decision to build my final unit around an open inquiry investigation.  The unit was ecology, and the results were so positive that I plan to use some of the lab ideas in other courses this coming year.

One Student Project

One Student Project

My students’ time in the lab over the course of the year was marked by struggle.  This is true most years, and while there was tremendous growth I wasn’t really sure what to expect from them with so much freedom.  Their projects were tremendous, and I can identify one specific behavior that I know had a significant effect on their success:  early feedback.

We participated in peer review in AP Biology several times throughout the year.  Whenever we have a peer review session, I model it closely after the professional peer review process in the scientific community.  To ensure students are critical and offer useful questions and suggestions I have begun implementing a surprising rule:  “If you have something nice to say, don’t say anything at all.”  It’s the opposite of the usual adage, but the policy prevents group-think and removes the stigma associated with critique.  The atmosphere is still positive and focused on growth.  I offer support and positive reinforcement myself, but the students must only ask questions or offer criticism.  At first they hate it, but by the end of the year I have found they usually keep the mentality in all discussion settings and we have more productive debate and argument as a result.

Another student project.

Another student project.

The peer review was a critical aspect of the investigation report because we used it at the most critical moment in the life of an experiment, the beginning.  Groups performed background research and formulated a prelab proposal, and we spent a full class day discussing the proposals.  Nearly every student group had a question that was not acceptable at the beginning, but as a class they revised each question to create true driving questions.  Students asked each presenting group questions like, “Well how are you going to measure that?”  or, “What part of that question are you REALLY curious about?”  I mostly listened, and together each group shared what they had and walked away with actionable next steps.  If I could have such productive and thought-provoking discussions every day in class, I would do nothing else all year.

A third student project

A third student project

There were plenty of things about the project that I need to improve (my time management between work time and other instruction and how to properly implement the modeling aspect of the project to name a couple).  Even with the challenges, it was a rich experience for everyone.  I vividly remember one group who stayed after school for an hour to troubleshoot their design.  I did little more than watch as they scribbled all over my class whiteboard discussing their variables, identifying constants, and making predictions.  At the end, one of my students that had struggled with the inquiry environment the most (very traditionally successful and was not comfortable with risk) turned to me and asked, “Is THIS what researchers do, because this is awesome.”  They were ENJOYING their difficulties, and I am getting goosebumps again now just writing about it.  Often AP teachers point to the breadth of curriculum we must cover as an excuse to avoid such open projects, myself included.  It was a risk I was very glad I took.

Anyone interested in seeing the investigation handout I provided the students, the document can be viewed here.

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KABT Fall Meeting – Vote for Breakout Sessions

July 22, 2014 in Events, KABT Meetings, KABT News

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This year at the 2014 Fall Conference we’re trying something new, we want to have two breakout sessions where participants get to decide what they would like to talk about! Maybe it’s using technology (like BYOD) in your classroom, moving from a traditional grading system to a more standards-based one, or something else, the topics are limitless and we’re looking for your input!

If there’s a topic you want other to vote on that you’ve had to type in, put it in the comments so I can add it to the existing list.

So, what topics would you like to discuss during the breakout sessions at the 2014 KABT Fall Conference? I’ve invited you to fill out the form KABT Fall Conference Community Session Voting. To fill it out, please visit: https://docs.google.com/forms/d/1jxrCgGmCK78d0ykrafV8Ps8AyMjLUaw_KYav3K5HYg8/viewform?c=0&w=1&usp=mail_form_link

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KABT Fall Meeting – Call for Presentation Proposals

July 20, 2014 in Events, KABT Meetings, KABT News

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Have something to share with the KABT community? Maybe it’s a new lab or activity that focuses on student collaboration? Maybe you’re looking for potential collaborators on a teaching project of yours? We invite you to come share at the 2014 Fall Conference on September 13th at the KU Field Stations. This year the focus will be on “Collaboration”.

It doesn’t matter if you’re a first time presenter, first year teacher or seasoned veteran. We’re looking for a variety of sessions with the central focus of collaboration, either between teachers, students, or a mix of both. If you’re unsure, submit your session idea and we can work with you as well. We want new faces, especially yours!

I invite you all to fill out the form KABT Fall Conference 2014 Presenter Application. To fill it out, please visit:

https://docs.google.com/forms/d/13e3B0lMnyFaKX9dKDU9qm1Hl5Uj8bw35Fiq-xUXz9Lg/viewform?c=0&w=1&usp=mail_form_link

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STEM Discussion Event – 7/16/14

July 9, 2014 in Events, KABT News

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The Kauffman Foundation is hosting a series of casual education meetups in the month of July to provide a setting to discuss current teaching innovations.  Next week I get to present, and I’ll be leading a discussion of how to encourage greater penetration of inquiry methods both in STEM classrooms and also beyond typical STEM settings (non-STEM disciplines and elementary classrooms).  The sessions have been interesting and thought-provoking thus far, and it’s been especially valuable to get “outside the garden” of life science teachers with which I typically interact.  I would love to have contributions from anyone interested and willing to join.  Plus free coffee, so awesome.

 

Where:  Kauffman Foundation (4801 Rockhill Rd Kansas City, MO 64110)

When:  July 16th from 8:00a – 9:00a

Carpool:  Anyone traveling from the south (Olathe) shoot me a message if you want to carpool/ride with me.

 

Hope to see you all there!

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Flipping and Going In Circles

June 20, 2014 in Labs, Teaching Resources

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Moving student learning out of the classroom will require better formative measures of competency and content acquisition.

 

Summer is the time for reflection in the life of a teacher.  This year I stumbled upon something interesting; I found myself at a nexus of several teaching styles:

  1. I teach a general biology course in a traditional time-allocation model.
  2. I teach an AP Biology course with significant aspects of a flipped classroom.
  3. I teach a Biotechnology program that is primarily student-directed.
  4. I participate in a master’s program that is 100% online learning.

In having access to a representative cross section of the current time-usage models, I noted that the primary struggle in moving learning outside the classroom walls and into a flipped or online model is continuing to obtain evidence of student learning without regular direct student interaction.

Assessment is Hard.

At first this observation is not particularly noteworthy, because all teachers must measure student learning frequently.  Informal assessment of student progress occurs constantly in a traditional classroom.  Bell work assesses retention from previous lessons.  Prelabs assess existing knowledge and preparation for an experience.  Teacher monitoring and student conversations provide information on class progress during an experiment.  Summative tasks such as writing samples and future applications provide guiding information moving forward.

The problem in moving to a flipped classroom or an online class (which is really just flipping a classroom 100% of the way) is losing access to all of the easiest methods of assessment.  Bell work is no longer sufficient for assessing extended learning occurring since the last meeting.  Informal conversations provide some information, but are not enough evidence alone to ensure an activity occurred outside of class time.  This leads to some of the greatest complaints from students in online/flipped environments.

Too Many Students' Online Course

Too Many Students’ Online Course

 If a Student Learns Alone in an Empty Room, Does She Make a Sound?

Online classes are notorious for superficial assignments, rote repetition, and unbalanced workloads.  These problems arise as supervisors clamor for evidence to support grades.  A professor or teacher can show a dozen forum posts about inquiry as evidence the students learned about inquiry.  The difficulty, as any teacher can tell you, is learning requires more interaction with the material than simply making required posts on a topic.

It seems too many flipping teachers are relying on superficial tasks (read-quiz-repeat or two-dozen-papers-done) because the most valuable learning behaviors are difficult to measure.  A class can read a passage and have a meaningful discussion and a teacher can know those things happened because they witnessed them in a room.  How else can you ensure such behaviors happened online without required forum posts?  As a result, online or heavily flipped classrooms revert to all the same learning behaviors seen in classrooms 100 years ago.

This problem leads to lots of “evidence”, but little legitimate learning!  We must as teachers have the courage to provide tasks to students that promote critical thinking and student ownership, and spend our time finding measurements that are strong evidence of a learning trajectory to reach a single point, rather than many superficial measurements along a linear path.

Do Digitize Strong Practices, Don’t Force Digital Practices

The solution to real online learning is two-fold:  make quality classroom experiences accessible to students alone at home, and measure their competency on those tasks after-the-fact.

The first struggle is one not easily solved.  There exists an experimental design course in my master’s program, and I dreaded this course.  I didn’t fear it for difficulty, but for quality.  How could forum posts alone help me refine my experimental design skills at a graduate level?  The answer was the obvious one, it couldn’t.  Our professor was very clear, we will be designing our own experiments at home and reporting our results.  I know other teachers in virtual environments tackle the same problems.  For teachers looking to flip our classrooms, we must be brave enough to create authentic tasks for our students to tackle on their own.

I would argue the best way to accomplish this is to identify the most fertile areas for flipping.  Prelab work and readings are obvious, but lab work can also be done at home at times.  Don’t flip your electrophoresis lab, but flip the prelab preparation so they can ensure they can run their gels long enough in class.  Don’t flip your photosynthesis lab by making it a dry lab over break, flip it by finding a new way to measure photosynthesis progress like biomass accumulation in various amounts of shade or temperature.  Don’t skate around the problems by simply providing tasks that are easy to design, get creative and solve the REAL problem.  Eliminate the busy work and allow more time for your students to focus on what’s left.

Flipping Pic 1

Excel file to report a full lab in AP Biology.

The second issue is evidence for the final course marks.  Half this problem is solved with quality flipped tasks.  The observation I would make is that we must find ways to take measurements that provide greater description for past learning.  A forum post is a fairly superficial measurement at face value.  A photo diary of the experimental process provides the same verification of an activity, but cuts the extraneous time investment to a minimum.  A well-crafted graph can be reported which provides evidence of data collection and analysis in a product that can be rapidly evaluated by the teacher.  The ultimate message is, “Increased workload does not a rigorous course make, and often it is its undoing.”

Michael Ralph is a teacher making mistakes at a prodigious rate in the hopes he will run out of errors sometime before he retires.  He’s also tweeting more now @ralph0305.

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Recollections from the Marais des Cygnes National Wildlife Refuge Field Trip

June 3, 2014 in Field Trips, KABT News, Nature

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As one of the trip coordinators for this year’s field trip, I must say that even though I was a bit stressed when our journey began and not everyone decided to take advantage of the free van transportation, it didn’t take long for me to relax as I watched the participants striking up conversations with each other in the field.

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Our first stop was at the Headquarters of the Marais des Cygnes National Wildlife Refuge where we met with Kim Martin, Federal Law Officer at the refuge.  She showed us a 12 minutes video introducing us to the history and growth of the national wildlife refuge system.  She then talked and answered questions about the Marais des Cygnes refuge and her duties in federal law enforcement.

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After our introduction, we check 15 small mammal traps that had been baited and set the afternoon before.  The traps were set in a recently burned restoration area, a non-burned restoration area, and a non-burned area that within a remnant tallgrass prairie.  We had no success in either of the restorations but captured a single hispid cotton rat and lone deer mouse in the prairie remnant.  While traversing the prairies the young naturalist in our party enjoyed netting the numerous great spangled fritillary butterflies we observed pollinating a stand of dogbane.

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From there we travel to another prairie restoration along Yardley Road to search for Mead’s Milkweed.  This federally endangered plant is known to exist naturally at three locations on the NWR property.  The plants we saw were individuals that had been planted into one of their restorations.  Participants were able to find a couple of plants that were in full bloom.

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From there we returned to Linn County Park for lunch and a short siesta.  When finished, we returned the NWR and headed to Stick Pond adjacent to the photoblind to check 4 turtle traps that had been baited and set the evening prior.  Three of the traps were hoop traps and one was a cage trap.  Each were baited with creamed corn and mackerel.  Interestingly enough, three of the traps had not a single turtle while one of the hoop traps contained 13 turtles of three species – 1 large snapping turtles, 1 painted turtle, and 12 large sliders (2 males and 10 females based on fore fingernail length).  It took us awhile to safely position the snapping turtle for removal from the trap and get a few pictures.  You’ll have to check out the KABT Facebook site for images of the turtles.  I had my hands full and didn’t want to get my camera wet.

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After our interactions with the chelonians, we traveled a wooded area surrounding an abandoned coal mining operation.  We were in search of the only stand of swamp white oak in the entire state of Kansas.  We read the informative email from MdCNWR Biologist, Tim Menard, which contained the following information –  “As you walk west from the state line parking lot, the swamp white will begin to appear before you get to the old service road, and definitely before you get to the flowing creek.  many of these trees are forked at the base.  Then you can see many more as you walk to the northwest.  The leaves look like chinkapin (which are just on the other side of the hill).  However, look for last year’s acorn caps with the long stem attached.”  We successfully found the trees.  At this stop we also witnessed a ringneck snake and the caterpillar of the pipe-vine swallowtail butterfly.  Chris Ollig from Blue Valley North High School introduced the group to dendrochronology and the appropriate use of the increment borer.

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Next, we traveled to Turkey Foot Pond, a man-made pond resulting from previous coal mining activities.  There we checked four additional turtle traps as well as surveyed for freshwater mussels known to occur at the site.  As the name implies, Turkey Foot Pond has three fingers.  On our descent to the western most finger, we encountered a lush stand of equisetum.  Two young snakes were observed – a plain-bellied water snake and a northern water snake - and a horsehair worm was discovered swimming in the pond along the shore.  We found a number of mussels the most abundant of which was the three ridge mussel.  The identities of the other mussels encountered awaits verification by mussel experts.  In the second finger we searched, we captured two sliders in one of four traps deployed.  Check out the aged slider that doesn’t look like a slider anymore in the images below.

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Finally, we travelled to the Marais des Cygnes River itself to search for the mussels beds that eluded Kelley Tuel and I on our previous trip to the refuge.  The group rallied their remaining reserves of energy to make the 1/2 mile walk into the site.  Along the way a number of gravid ribbon snakes were found hanging out in a warm ephemeral watered ditch.  Most of the kids and only two adults made there way into the river.  Not thinking, I swam downstream looking for mussels and found a few weathered shells and a young slider basking on a log.  Otherwise, the kids enjoyed this final swim one of the parents of the big muddy.

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On Sunday, those that were left travelled to the Smith Ranch newt pond.  We encountered a large plain-bellied water snake (check out the story on the KS Herpetology Facebook), a worm snake, and a ground skink.  None of us braved the muddy pond to seine for newts.

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I will be adding some links in the future, and subsequently will be creating individual posts for some of the information that we planned on sharing but didn’t seem the time to.

Enjoy!

 

 

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KABT Field Trip Information and Draft Schedule

May 27, 2014 in Events, Field Trips, Nature

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Bottomland Hardwood 950 x 348

Marais des Cygnes National Wildlife Refuge, May 30 – June 1

The link below contains the draft document for the KABT Field Trip this weekend including background, directions, maps, and a schedule of events for Friday-Sunday.  Please read it.  I will have final copies along with some instructional activities as handouts on the field trip.  The map to the KABT Campsite is accurate, and we will likely have some directional signs up in Linn County Park to help you along.  We still haven’t figured out a good restaurant to eat lunch at (there might not be one) so be prepared by bringing food for Saturday’s lunch for sure.  I am imagine we can find a place to eat dinner in La Cygnes, Pleasanton, or Louisburg.

KABT SPRING FIELD TRIP 2014_Draft_to_Share

I still have some editing of the background to do based on suggestions from the staff at the Marais des Cygnes NWR, and there may be some changes to the schedule. If you are coming down on Friday and want to help set traps, etc… please text me your name so that I can keep you informed if anything changes.  I’m at 816-804-7106.

I may upload a list of possible things to bring later but do be warned that you should be prepared for having your legs covered while walking around in the prairies and forests during the beginning of the day, etc… and then getting into the Marais des Cygnes River later. I will be carrying a backpack and wearing my swim trunks under my jeans.

It goes without saying that we will likely encounter some poison ivy and ticks during our journey.

If you have any questions about the field trip feel free to post a comment here, on the KABT Facebook, of feel free to email me.  Hope to see you all at the end of the week!

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